Tuesday, March 31

Writing as design

Many mystery authors - this one included - would argue that writing stories, true or imagined, short or long, improves with age. It's not just the practice over time. As multitasking declines, focusing skills may improve. The skill promotes greater reflection by relying on memory and experience while also preserving memory and experience.

Not to mention that stories distract us from our problems ...

Research suggests that areas of the brain can improve with age. And advanced abilities can correlate with innovation and creativity. The Institute of Design at Stanford outlines the human-centered design process of empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test - all essential for the process of writing.

Indeed, drafting stories is a form of design.

Consider the first page of the d.school's Bootcamp Bootleg - and the many connections to drafting a mystery plot: show don't tell, focus on human values, craft clarity, embrace experimentation, be mindful of process, bias toward action, radical collaboration.

The guide advises that experiences are assets but only at the right time. For fresh work, assume the beginner's mindset: "Your assumptions may be misconceptions and stereotypes, and can restrict the amount of real empathy you can build."

How to assume this mindset? Don't judge. Question everything. Be curious, Find patterns. And Listen.

The guide offers additional advice on point of view, critical reading, imposition of constraints, character profiling, and determination of who is extreme: "Look to extreme users for inspiration and to spur wild ideas."

I began writing mysteries thirty years ago. Some plots emerge quickly and others are slow to form, but I am confident that the ones drafted today are better than the earlier ones. Some would suggest this comes with practice, but I do believe greater empathy, intuition, experiences, collaboration and appreciation of diversity have played their role.

In Allure of Deceit, an antagonist from Fear of Beauty designs a new life through writing and negotiations with foreign charities. Request a review copy.

Image of young woman with stylus for writing on wax tablet, Roman fresco, Sappho, circa the year 50, courtesy of  Wikkimedia Commons.


Businesses want to sell their products. They do not want their employees assessing customers' morality on the spot.

They also do not want customers or government assessing the morality of their employees engaged in legal activities that may offend some religions.

CEOs of major companies headquartered in Indiana - including Eli Lilly and Company, Cummins Inc, Roche Diagnostics and Dow AgroSciences - are urging Governor Mike Pence to adjust the Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

"A who's who of top Indiana business executives called on Gov Mike Pence and legislative leaders to reform the newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act so it can't be sued to 'justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity,'" reports the Indianapolis Star.

The controversial bill in Indiana highlights the challenge for religions. Religious leaders each assume their form of practice is right and that the practice of others is wrong. Politicians and businesses cannot get involved in this battle.

If anything, the act's supporters may have instigated new protections against discrimination on sexual orientation.

11 am press conference with Gov Pence: He insists the law does not give license to discriminate and the law does not allow businesses to deny services. However, at one point Pence slipped and added "that are appropriate" after using the word "services."

He describes religious freedom as the nation's priority and suggests the law has a perception problem based on "smear" coverage, "mischaracterization" and "misunderstandings" and "reckless reporting." Pence seems to overlook that the First Amendment gives equal protection to freedom of the press.

Disturbing for women, he keeps referring to the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court that allows an employer to refuse insurance coverage for services that may go against religious beliefs.

He promises a fix to a "perception problem" this week, and if it's not a good one, expect clogged courts.

Religious shaming invites a backlash.

Monday, March 30

Freedom to be mean?

Religion is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods" and "A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance."

Throughout history, some take this pursuit to extremes. In the United States, the effort to protect religious beliefs that go against social norms can get complicated. Special protections can trample other other rights and courtesies.

Indiana has enacted a law on "Religious Freedom Restoration."

The vague law can deliver confusion in a nation with a wide range of beliefs. The law allows businesses and corporations to reject customers based on religious beliefs. So, a pharmacist could refuse to provide a prescription for legal birth control pills. A baker can refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple planning their wedding. A doctor could refuse to deliver the infant of an unmarried mother. A real estate agent may refuse to a sell a home to an unmarried couple. A day care facility could refuse to accept children whose parents may not share beliefs simply because teachers to not want the burden of explaining diverse beliefs and practices.

Such laws seem drafted to allow citizens to rely on religious beliefs to be self-righteous, petty, mean or spiteful.

Burdens are in the eye of the beholder. Stephanie Wang writes for IndyStar:

"The argument over what [Governor Mike] Pence has thus signed becomes not only intellectual, but visceral, vitriolic, ugly. Both sides dig in, because each thinks the other is flatly wrong - in their hearts, and on the facts. And the debate rages on, sometimes spiraling to a place so far away from the law itself. All of which raises a larger question. Which really matters most: What the religious freedom law will actually legally enable; what people think it means; or what the intent is behind the law?"

As such, these laws are dangerous for religious beliefs in general. Citizens who become the targets of such acts or hear of friends who were rejected by a business will scrutinize the individual players and religions for meanness, hypocrisies and inconsistencies.

One religion's bad behavior tarnishes the reputation of religion in general as observers recognize the rules of God are interpreted by man.  In the Middle East and the United States, religion in the hands of modern man is becoming less a comfort and more a source of strife.

Places of worship and villages that exclude rather than welcome are destined to become lonely places.

The Indiana law reads:

"a government entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" though a government may "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the government entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest." 

Those who feel their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened "may assert the violation... as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other government entity is a party to the proceeding."

The text of the Indiana law describes "exercise of religion" which "includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief."

In the United States, citizens have freedom to worship as they please. Amendment I of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Article IV of the US Constitution emphasizes that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Photo of abandoned church in Dickens, Nebraska, courtesy of Ammodramus and Wikimedia Commons

And do note, this post is not to suggest that the small town in Nebraska or the abandoned church is biased or connected to the Indiana law in any way. The town's economy changed with the Dust Bowl, changing transportation routes, and a merger with a nearby community. Remember, there are hauntingly beautiful structures all over this nation and the world, and the reasons are many.

Monday, March 23

Words as weapon

A well-placed falsehood can instigate murder.

In  Kabul, a woman named Farkhunda was kicked and beaten, run over by a car, and then burned to death by attackers who accused her of burning a Koran, reports Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post. Witnesses agree that "she got into an argument with a man who sold amulets in front of the Shah-Do Shamshera shrine," Kaplan explains. Islamic scholars disagree about whether amulets, even those inscribed with quotes from the Koran, are permissible for adherents.

Before long, another man claimed she tossed copy of the Koran into a fire pit. Kaplan continues:"Farkhunda argued that she didn't burn anything - and authorities later said they were unable to find a 'single iota of evidence' that she had set fire to the Korean - but the mob ignored her."

Authorities were at the scene, and the public is divided about whether the members of the mob should be investigated and punished. But as Kaplan concludes, at the very least, Afghans are questioning and debating the morality of Farkhunda's death.

As explained in a previous blog post, an antagonist in Allure of Deceit plots to destroy a rival in his life:

All he "had to do was point out that Rose was an atheist who had once desecrated a copy of the Koran - and yet the Western woman continued to enjoy the rewards of travel and vast wealth. [He] casually passed along cash and copies of a newspaper photograph of Rose to three young men. The most desperate of the three, a young man by the name of Qasim, managed to travel to India.

"The bomb had been intended for Rose alone."

Mishandling of any object does not justify murder under any circumstances. Yet those intent on a criminal behavior and power can concoct a rationale and spread a false rumor to convince others to attack and destroy a fellow human being. As American shipping magnate Alvin Adams, 1804 to 1877, once said, "Appreciate the power of rumor, often malicious, no matter how preposterous, within the local populations you are seeking to help."

Image  of lithograph of Afghan  shows foot soldiers at the entrance to the Valley of Urgundeh in 1841, courtesy of the British Library and Wikimedia Commons: "Amulets, relics and little bags full of texts and prayers were tacked about their clothes.... The men depicted here belonged to a British regiment called the Rangers, which was raised in Kohistan under the command of Lieutenant Maule of the Artillery, who said that he had his hands full trying to impose discipline among these 'wild, unruly, merry fellows.'"

Wednesday, March 18


The civil war in Syria has entered its fifth year. So far, with 210,000 dead and 10 million displaced, scattered to refugee camps or left to fend for themselves, the crisis seems overwhelming. 

"A lack of funding, coordination and international political will to guarantee aid access has meant that many people are not getting the help they need, particularly in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria," writes Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, for the New Statesman.

Save the Children works in 120 countries: "Across all our work, we pursue several core values: accountability, ambition, collaboration, creativity and integrity."

Forsyth offers specific recommendations including coalitions of governments and NGOs that can better coordinate aid, new strategies for reaching remote places, devising a system for nations to provide equitable funding, and empowering recipients. YaleGlobal points out that such strategies may "seem narrow in light of an expanding population, rising inequality, a decline in resources as basic as water amid so many longstanding conflicts."

As is often the case, readers' comments to Forsyth's essay reflect the challenges and even awareness of the complexities in the Middle East. Some readers offer small and hopeful recommendations; others argue the conflict is not the West's concern. YaleGlobal concludes by noting that the crisis could destabilize neighboring countries. The globe has reason to provide aid. Yet polarization among nations and within nations and organization, in addition to unnecessary politicization of countless issues and misinformation, not only prevent efficient distribution of aid but also the good governance and united effort that could keep such conflicts at bay in the first place.

The novel Allure of Deceit examines how charitable aid comes with an agenda by examining  a foundation's work on the ground in Afghanistan. A director uses programs to investigate the death of her son and wife while villagers are astounded to be regarded as recipients of aid. In the end, most parties are aligned, but not without deceit.

In the end, does aid from external sources help governments evade their responsibility? What kind of aid encourages responsibility? Priorities must be set.

Photo of Syrian children studying in Lebanon schools, with aid from the UK, Save the Children, and Unicef, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Russell Watkins, Department for International Development.

Monday, March 16


The ideas for my books set in Afghanistan - a woman desperate to learn how to read, children running away to an orphanage, a would-be doctor with no patients and a village that gossips about a woman who performs abortions - emerged from my imagination, pure and simple.

As such, the ideas were based on my life experiences. That is probably why I regard Interruptions, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit as my favorite books.

I wrote about the limits of research for Portland Book Review: 

"The stories of my characters are ... woven with my memories: The exhilaration of my mother reading aloud, transforming a nightly fairy tale into heart-wrenching moments. The hints that my brother, sister and I might be a burden after her death. Summers spent on an uncle's farm, running with cousins through fields and patches of woods. Sessions with students, adults and younger, who confided about their struggles to read. The confusion after a long wait in a clinic with a friend distraught over a pregnancy and sensing a change of heart. Arguments with my son and fears for his safety as he set off on more than one ill-considered adventure."

"My research does not aim to provide a travelogue on Afghanistan, but rather prompt an examination of the comforts and opportunities in my country."

I conclude by pointing out that imagination goes into research, unearthing new details, making careful choices and connections. Yes, imagination is required for research, but somehow many readers do not use the word that way.

And I certainly must admit to finding the courage to start writing my novels while examining old, old books deep in the stacks of Yale's Sterling Library.

Libraries are truly magical places, as discovered by Sofi in Fear of Beauty.

Photo of Sterling Memorial Library, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Emilie Foyer; photo of Sterling stacks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ragesoss, to whom I'm grateful for taking a photograph of the inside of this wonderful place.

Tuesday, March 10

Reading aloud

Reading is an activity that increases our knowledge and lifts our spirits. It's an exchange between writer and reader. The writer tries to persuade and convince, but every reader controls his or her interpretation of any text even if some must do so in secret. 

Among my favorite memories: my mother reading to me and years later reading books aloud with my son. Our family started when he was three months old. I propped him against the sofa beside me for endless repeats of rhythmical Each Peach Pear Plum and continued the nightly ritual into early high school when we both took turns. 

We analyzed the books and compared them to our lives. And we understood them better for both following the words on paper as well as hearing them or speaking aloud. 

"Shared bookreading can stimulation more verbal interaction between child and parent, and therefore children's language development is likely to profit more from reading aloud than toy play or other adult-child interactions," note E. Duursma, M. Augustyn and B. Zuckerman n "Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence." 

The list of evidence is long: "Sharing books with children can also help them learn about peer relationships, coping strategies, building self-esteem and general world knowledge." 

Even for older children and adults, reading a key points out loud helps create a distinctive memory, notes Art Markman  in Psychology Today, writing about a paper by Colin MacLeod, Nigel Gropie, Kathleen Hourihan, Karen Neary and Jason Ozubko for Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory, and Cognition. 

"The read-aloud process has enormous benefits to literacy learning," write Vanessa Morrison and Lisa Wheeler for Reading Rockets. 

Fear of Beauty is about a woman in rural Afghanistan who is desperate to learn how to read after the death of her so. In Allure of Deceit, she is trying to urge another son to attend reading sessions in their village. In both these mystery books about parent-child relationships, the characters read aloud.
Write to request a review copy.

Image of The Holy Family with the Virgin Teaching the Child to read, painted by Bartolomeo Schedoni, 1578-1615, courtesy of the National Gallery in London and Wikimedia Commons. The Italian artist who was known for his art with religious subjects, "quiet sentiment and vigorous painting" had a troubled life, notes ArtFortune.com.